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getting real about everything in architecture

It’s been quite some time since my last posting. Things have been festering. It has been 18 months since I moved from Chicago to Redondo Beach, California and I’ve given myself adequate time to acclimate to the different aesthetics.

At first, it was the vegetation. How strange everything seemed with palm trees, hollyhock, eucalyptus, all sorts of strange pines and, of course, the Chaparral. All this was so visually alien to me that I never felt at home. I was a visitor; on vacation.

But with the passage of time, my eyes have grown (no pun intended), accustomed to the beauty and variety of plant life here in the South Bay of Los Angeles. Having said that, I can now look past the plants and see why I’m so frustrated. The houses of the South Bay are offensive. There, of course, are a few exceptions, but when I say “a few,” I mean “a few”!

And as an architect myself, I just can’t fathom this. Every, single day, I troll the internet for new real estate listings. When we moved to Redondo Beach, we leased our home for two years since we weren’t certain where we should settle down. So, I’m looking for a home to purchase and there’s not a single home that mere mortals can afford that has any type of aesthetic quality. I don’t have $3M-$6M to plunk down on a house so I’m pretty  much stuck looking at what would otherwise qualify as “dog meat” properties.

Maybe it’s like a restaurant with a fantastic view. They don’t have to work hard to make their food and service great, since people will keep coming back for the view.  The houses of the South Bay are so atrocious since people will come here anyway for the sun, the ocean, the mountains and the mostly perfect weather.

This is what must go on in home builder’s heads:

“Why bother building homes of any quality or style. People will buy whatever crap we build, so let’s build it cheap.”

Where are the architects? I once read that only 10% of all buildings in the US involve an architect. I think that percentage is far lower here in Redondo Beach. I include in this onslaught, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Torrance, Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, and Rolling Hills Estates. I’m not even going to bother talking about the even more appalling areas of San Pedro and Lomita.

I care about where I live. When I wake up in the morning and when I go to sleep at night, the space I occupy is critically important. Everything I touch and see has an effect on my well being. If it weren’t for the fact that we can look out of our windows and see the blue sky, feel the velvet air and see the ocean, I’d shoot myself. If this were anywhere else in the the country, I’d be dead by now.

So I’m stuck looking for a lot to build our own home. Of course, there aren’t any lots available since this is Southern California where any piece of land worth living on has been snatched up and destroyed by a home builder already. You have to overpay for some horrible house so you can remove it and build something worth living in.

You’d think that with the hard-press of the modern movement out here, the housing would be of a much higher caliber. WRONG!

Southern California is a text-book case for the uglification of America.

A Woman's PlaceHey, why are you nodding your head? It’s not politically correct. Didn’t you pay attention to Reagan and his cadre of etiquette and right-thinking acolytes?

Ahhhh, you say your nodding head isn’t really a sign of approbation. Of course, you don’t agree with this headline. No siree Bob. If it weren’t for that neck injury you got playing tennis over the weekend, you would be adamantly shaking your head in contempt.

Don’t look now, but say hello to your wife standing next you and looking at your computer screen. Hope you have a comfortable couch. I sure do.

Stay with me here. Unlikely as it seems, this is not an oddball diatribe. It has a purpose. is about you. About breaking down barriers, eliminating myths and ultimately, about your success as an architect. Strike that. It’s about your success as an Architect (with a capital “A”). New ideas from BIM to Sustainability take you off your game. You used to be so confident. He (she), with the coolest design wins. Well, this is not your father’s profession anymore. Someone didn’t just move your cheese, they replaced it with a steaming plate of Rocky  Mountain oysters. Your head is spinning with questions (mostly suspicions). that lead you to thrashing ideas around until (with luck and admonition), the truth comes out. Ultimately, this is about your success as a professional.

Back to today’s diatribe, er, story.

Do you get the point? We’re more sophisticated than what this picture promotes. At least we think so. We tell ourselves that any mature being with higher brain functions and a basic sense of social acceptability would never say, much less think, such a thing. This is, after all, the post-Alan Alda era. A woman’s place is in the home. Abominable. Sexist. Disgusting. Yo, woman, get me another beer! would never cross your mind, much less cross your lips (unless you wanted a fat lip).

We tell ourselves how sophisticated we are. Yet, we are surrounded by similarly repulsive ideas in our personal and working lives. Sometimes they resonate just a little bit. We may accept an idea. We might also suppress them, push them away and down deep. But mostly, we accept them as the status quo.

What is it about us? Why are we so accepting? Why is it that only a few of us ever stop and say “Hey, wait a minute! This isn’t right. This could be better. We should change this.” Why do we tolerate mediocrity?

Today, few of us would allow a 1950ish attitude to dominate our thoughts. We no more believe “A woman’s place is the home” than we do “Rock and Roll is just a passing fad.” We progress. But, we also know how close such attitudes were — how close some are today — to being not only perfectly acceptable, but normal and expected.

Cheer up. I now present you with a few interesting and hopefully amusing videos to illustrate my point.  They demonstrate where we were only a few decades ago and  how absurd it all seems into today’s world. (Keep saying it: This is absurd. This is absurd.)

Leave it to Beaver (no pun intended)

Be satisfied with the vote

The proper way for women to behave.

Family Guy goes retro

As architects, we are incredibly well trained to look at a situation and find a way to improve it. Why limit ourselves to the built environment? Frankly, I believe it’s a problem with our education. It puts so much emphasis on building design, that we forget our intrinsic skill is analyzing situations and finding solutions to improve conditions. Problem solving. Or, maybe it’s not that we don’t realize our skills, it’s just that our education has us believe that only through contributions to the built environment can an architect every hope to achieve success and be fulfilled.

Ayn Rand - FountainheadWhen I look around at the world today, it’s obvious that there has never been a better time to put our skills to work in areas other than design and construction. Sketchbooks don’t just have to describe creative solutions to buildings. Leonardo da Vinci understood this. He didn’t simply sit around designing spaces. He put his creative spirit to looking at all sorts of ways to improve the human condition.

Personally, I had a successful career as an architect in a traditional practice. I’ve enjoyed “Howard Roark” moments. After more than 20 years playing that role, I’ve realized that I can contribute more to changing our world than by an artful arrangement of bricks and mortar. It’s not that I don’t love architecture, it’s just that there’s more to the world than assembling sticks and stones.

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Things done slowWe just learned that last week BQE Software submitted the advertisement shown here to run in the AIA Florida/Caribbean Architect magazine. They received an email from an Account Manager at McGraw-Hill telling them that the Association (AIA), felt that this ad was “inappropriate for their audience.

I nearly dropped my chai latte on my lap when I heard this. Is it just me, or is this censorship “inappropriate“???? Who at the AIA, is in-charge of determining what the membership might be offended by?

If someone at the AIA want’s to fess-up, please reply to this article

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Winston Churchill“…democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried…” 1 ~ Winston Churchill

Change a few words and the Prime Minister’s commentary on democracy could easily be applied to LEED. The USGBC’s system is barely ten years old, yet it has been has been remarkably successful in transforming the public’s view of architecture and the market for architectural goods.

But if you are familiar with the system or have tried to get a building certified you know it has some major problems.

It’s clumsy, brutish, long, and expensive. Of course that may describe the architectural process itself, but nonetheless LEED creates an additional layer. It is in essence a scheme of regulatory compliance in which owners volunteer to participate, and one that appears at times tailored to obscure. Almost by definition, regulations impose, they don’t facilitate. LEED is not designed to be a good tool for making the goal-seeking process of architecture more efficient or effective. Although certification is dangled in front of us as a reward, the process of dealing with LEED itself is more stick than carrot.

The Reference Guide is over 500 pages long and costs $160. How many have us have read it cover-to-cover let alone the included reading list? LEED documentation is complex and circuitous. I was privileged to work on what was arguably the first green building in Chicago, the LEED Platinum Chicago Green Tech. It’s LEED documentation was an eight-foot bookshelf of four-inch black binders that got boxed and shipped to USGBC. Things have improved, but  the USGBC’s newest streamlining effort — the new LEED Online, is awkward and sluggish at best. The old one is almost unusable. Official LEED reviewers are often uneven, inconsistent, unreachable, and inexperienced, a result no doubt of the incredibly rapid growth the the USGBC and the newly formed Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). And there seems to be a new fee every time you turn around. If you want to work in all the many LEED systems — there are seven now: NC, EB, CI, CS, ND, Schools, Retail, and Healthcare, each with their own $160 guide — you are encouraged to achieve accreditation in each of them … for an additional fee.

When the developer of LEED Gold Core & Shell project I’m working on wanted to bump up his pre-certification to Platinum, USGBC wanted an extra $2,000 to review the two additional credits required. $1,000 per credit? Let’s get real.

It rewards sprawl. LEED draws a tight line around the environmental impacts it considers relevant. Transportation, specifically commuting impact, is the biggest hole. Commercial buildings, the primary LEED beneficiary, created 19%2 of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2008. Personal vehicle use — driving cars to buildings — accounted for 17%2, nearly as much as the buildings themselves. Yet LEED-NC (for example) has only 14 points available to reward reduced driving compared to 42 points directly related to energy reduction3.

Do the math for Chicago using two basic facts: 1. The average LEED NC-certified building is only 24% more efficient than the average existing building4 (an average that includes a great many buildings over 50 years old). 2. More than 60% of downtown Chicago workers take transit, bike, or walk, rather than drive, thus eliminating 60% of auto impacts. In other words, when the car is accounted for, non-green conventional construction in a downtown Chicago location is nearly two-and-a-half times better (60/24) than its LEED-rated car-only suburban doppelganger when it comes to CO2 emissions (and by implication total energy). A building in Manhattan is almost four-times better. Location efficiency is critically important to sustainability, and it provides other benefits ignored by LEED: less time in traffic, a healthier population, lower costs, greater convenience, and many others.

For a recent design project in a major city, the team proposed exemplary LEED credit be awarded for the incredible public transport options available near the site: 7 train lines, 17 bus routes, and 47 transit stops. Not a single employee drove to work. The USGBC denied the extra credit saying it would “unfairly reward an urban location”.

It distorts the design process. One of LEED’s strengths is its ability to challenge owners and designers to take the next step. “We’re within two points of silver. Let’s go for it.” But it also encourages point-chasing. Many clients want LEED certification, but are uninterested in the actual benefits of green design. This results in simply pursuing enough credits to qualify, to get the label. I submit that the majority of Certified- and Silver-level buildings are not designed or really intended to be sustainable (a hope is not an intention), they are just chasing points. Many architects see LEED as something to withstand, to get through. They don’t, or believe they can’t charge for what they see as additional services. They are unwilling, or don’t think they have time to engage with new ways of thinking about design or process. So they go for the cheapest, quickest points available. Who can blame them? Yet that effort distracts from good design (green or not). It results in buildings that are often not the architect’s best work. And it produces projects that are only marginally more sustainable than their conventional brethren, yet they are LEED certified. This does not mean the designers are bad architects or that the owners are bad people, but they may have made some bad choices.

“The best argument against LEED is a five-minute conversation with the average architect.”  This paraphrase of another Churchill quote (sub-in Democracy for LEED and voter for architect) illustrates a related issue. I spend a good part of my day helping other architects apply the principles of sustainable design to their work. I’m usually hired by the owner who wants a green project but for a variety of good reasons has retained an architect who is unfamiliar with sustainable design and LEED. I find three responses to my involvement: 1. Architects who profess little interest in green, but take a professional and cooperative approach since that is what the owner has requested, 2. Architects who are eager to learn the principles of the relatively new approach (these are the most interesting to work with), and 3. Architects who passively resist and even sabotage the process despite the stated goals of the owner. Even now, 40 years after the first Earth Day and ten years after LEED started, most buildings are designed merely to meet code. Why? How much of that is the responsibility of the architect?

LEED contributes to this problem by working against sustainable design. Wait, aren’t we talking about the preeminent tool for designing green buildings? Realize this: LEED is a rating system, not a design tool. If you want a good process, the first thing to do is put the LEED checklist in the garbage can. Integrated design is the key to good sustainably-oriented projects. A primary principle is breaking down the barriers between disciplines and finding cross-functional synergy — breaking out of our professional silos. The sustainable design process can lead to less expensive and faster projects that score very well on the LEED checklist. Almost every project I’ve worked on has exceeded its original LEED goal — e.g. Silvers became Golds — because we had a good process, a great team, a cooperative engaged owner, and because we essentially ignored LEED at the beginning. Despite the USGBC’s proselytizing about integrated design, the LEED system itself does not support good process — it actually creates new and complex silos: the credits/prerequisites themselves. And it provides no effective means to integrate them. Yes, integration is the job of the architect, but LEED could and should help.

It creates false experts. There are only about 4,700 LEED-certified commercial buildings in the world5, yet there are over 120,000 LEED Accredited Professionals6 (LEED AP). How many of them have actually participated in a LEED project let alone seeing one through to the end? The USGBC touts LEED APs as “…holding a firm understanding of green building practices and principles…”7 Many RFPs require LEED APs. Clients accept the credential as a genuine indication of experience and knowledge. In reality, LEED Accreditation means you have passed a test to show you can remember key aspects of a 500 page manual on administering the LEED documentation process – in effect, that you can read and interpret a complicated phone book. This does not mean LEED Accreditation is useless or pointless. It’s a way to join the club, to participate in the excitement, and to learn a great deal about green building. It may give one a sense of what teams face in pursuing LEED certification. I endorse it. Everyone should be a LEED AP. But it does not substitute for knowledge and experience. And it doesn’t make you an expert in anything.

And yet….

And yet, despite my complaints, LEED really is the best option available for objectively rating the environmental performance of buildings. It’s not just ‘OK’. What the USGBC has achieved is truly remarkable. More owners participate in LEED every day. Records are being broken every week for number of registered projects, energy saved, countries participating, cities adopting, etc. LEED buildings have been shown to be more valuable in the marketplace and less prone to obsolescence than conventional construction.

Despite the good science behind it, LEED was created by broad industry consensus, and that shows in the relative value of various credits. Power in America lies in suburbia, hence the significant sustainable advantages of cities are discounted. But to its credit, the USGBC is constantly reevaluating, improving, and raising standards. Buildings that received a Platinum rating in NC version 1 would likely not make the grade today.

The biggest future problem may be the USGBC’s growing monopolistic dominance. Like Microsoft, USGBC may become lazy and arrogant, stop innovating, and rely on its market position to sell its systems to more and more who have no choice but to participate. I personally don’t think market competition and fragmentation (Green Globes, et al.) is the best option. USGBC is a not-for-profit that is currently acting quite a bit like a money-grubbing corporation intent on selling its particular widget. I think it should return to its original mission:

To transform the way buildings and communities are designed, built and operated, enabling an environmentally and socially responsible, healthy, and prosperous environment that improves the quality of life.

A Loyal Opposition

To me that means more emphasis on helping the industry understand and implement sustainable design, not just LEED. It means greater transparency to users by providing, among other things, certification access independent of LEED Online (perhaps through a programming interface so others can provide a better mousetrap yet participate in LEED certification). It means maintaining its integrity by reducing the undue influence of special interests on credit weighting. And it means supporting more equitable access to sustainable design and LEED though some kind of mechanism to help small businesses, non-profits, affordable housing, and other efforts participate more broadly.

The industry has been fawning over LEED for a decade. Perhaps it’s time for a more critical approach. Perhaps its time for a loyal opposition that agrees with the principles but tries to keep the power of a growing USGBC in check while leveraging its significant reach and influence.

What do you think?

Kevin Pierce, AIA, LEED AP, CEM

Kevin is Managing Director of Shaw Sustainable Design Solutions of Illinois, LLC, — an integrated firm providing comprehensive sustainable design services.  He is involved in projects nation-wide in energy efficiency, green infrastructure, clean energy, and green building. Kevin is Chairman of the Resource Center,  a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on urban agriculture and extreme recycling, adjunct associate professor at a the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a board member of American Institute of Architects, Illinois.

1. The Official Report, House of Commons (5th Series), 11 November 1947, vol. 444, cc. 206–07. (via WikiQuote)

2. p.ES-8,  Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2008, Executive Summary (PDF), USEPA, April 2010

3. LEED 2009 for New Construction and Major Renovation Checklist. Four credits reward reduced driving: Sustainable Sites credit 2, 4.1, 4.2, and 4.4. for a total of 14 potential points. Twelve credits relate to energy reduction: WE prerequisite 1, credits 1, 3;  EA prerequisite 1, 2, credits 1, 2, 3, 5, 6; EQ credits 6.1 and 8.1. for a total of 43 potential points.

4. p. 2, Energy Performance of LEED® for New Construction Buildings, New Buildings Institute (for USGBC), March 2008. Note that this is a comparison with comparable existing buildings, not code. How close does the average existing building come to meeting the energy code? Are LEED buildings saving ANY energy?

5. USGBC LEED Certified Projects List

6. GBCI LEED Professional Directory. As of May 9, 2010, there are 123,056 LEED APs in the US.

7. p 474, LEED Reference Guide for Green Building Operations and Maintenance, 2009 Edition

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Truth in Architecture reports, most of us in the architectural profession are pretty darn fed up. In fact, I was so fed up I took a leave of absence from a good paying gig in the Middle East to set out a manuscript for a book that’s presently entitled “Grand Reinvention” (of the United States); we’ll see how long that title lasts when and if I’m lucky enough to find a literary agent who’s willing put his or her mitts on it.

I wasn’t sure but Truth in Architecture assured me that this blog and the literary nightmare I’m presently slogging through will have more than a few threads in common; at least with respect to the architectural focus envisioned here.

Of the categories listed, I decided, after first giving some consideration to Integrated Practice, to post this opening salvo in Architectural Education. The first reason is that this terminology, Architectural Education, is truly multivalent in that it applies equally well to college students, architects at all levels of experience and expertise as well as to non-practitioners, including those who represent us in Congress and the various state houses. The second reason is that because there’s ample evidence of late to suggest that we’re about to experience some profoundly massive changes, it behooves us to all to acquaint ourselves with these and their potential implications. As architects, whether we like it or not, our expertise obliges us to assume key leadership roles, and education of all parties is essential to ensure progress and success.

By the way, that book I’m presently working on is intended to serve an educational role, albeit for a much wider and presumably less savvy audience than the architectural profession.

Basically, as I see it at this point, early into an epic energy crisis, architecture, though significant, is far less important in the traditional sense than it was just years ago. With the exception of a few outstanding architects, the global community would be better served if most of us worked outside the realm of traditional practice.


If the republic we call the United States is to endure to serve future generations, we’re going to have to drastically rearrange the way we live our lives. This rearrangement will demand far more managerial finesse than the limited brief of traditional architectural practice typically affords, yet will demand skills that few outside the profession process. My sense is that the problem statement for this rearrangement will be multi-faceted and demand a balanced comprehensive solution rather than piecemeal solutions to seemingly unrelated and separate problems. In the final analysis, the efforts demanded of this generation may well eclipse those of that Greatest Generation to endure the Great Depression and defeat Fascism, and success is far from assured.

But this begs questions that require careful discussion before they can be fully answered. They fall into two categories; here follows a brief and far from complete listing:

Category 1 – The need for Rearrangement

1) Do you agree that an energy crisis of epic proportions lies at our doorstep and that this drives a need to totally rearrange the way we do things?

I happen to believe that we’re in it deep but aren’t generally aware of how dire our predicament is. After almost three plus decades of diverting potential investment capital overseas to pay for imported oil and more recently to invest in Chinese industrial capacity, our economy has been so hollowed out that the only way we could keep up appearances was to borrow more and more from the Chinese. The last time I looked China was a communist land committed to transforming the world into a socialist workers’ paradise. A famous quote of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Russian revolutionary and communist politician who led the October Revolution of 1917, was: “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Perhaps he didn’t quite go far enough? Not only have the Capitalists been willing to pay for the rope, they’ve been willing to pay for the factory in which the rope is made and then borrow the capital needed to pay for the rope from the communists as well!

Our economy was running on borrowed capital until the 2008 crisis and now, with an epic energy crisis brewing, until we undertake a massive rearrangement in the way we do things, the only time the economy will seem to recover is for a few months after stimulus packages get passed. It will be like up north in the winter when you’ve got a car with gas line freeze and the only time it fires up is for a few moments after you’ve sprayed some starting ether into the air intake.

My sense is that the only way were going to get an economy that has enough of a surplus to allow architects to indulge in traditional practice is when we fix this mess we’re in. I’m of the opinion that scale of this mess is so epic and will take so long to fix that the architects who might be able to indulge in traditional practice probably haven’t been born yet.

2) Assuming the answer to question 1 is yes, what do you think the scope of this rearrangement will be? From what I’ve come to understand, this rearrangement will drive enormous changes to every part of the built environment. It’s likely that very little can be left untouched as success may require that everything will need to be revamped eventually.

3) How long will this rearrangement take? By some estimates, the whole process could last several decades meaning that many of us will not live to see it through and many just now entering the profession could devote their entire working lives to it.

Category 2 – The Role of Architects in this Rearrangement

1)  If this rearrangement will demand more managerial finesse that traditional practice affords, how then might architects best exercise their leadership responsibilities?

2) What unique skills do architects bring to the fore necessary to ensure success? Well, the more “seasoned” among us may still know how to hand draft while drinking Scotch and smoking Cuban cigars, something akin to walking across a street while chewing gun, but beyond that, just what tricks do we have up our sleeve that few others have?

3) If we’re to work outside the realm of traditional practice, how then are we to minimize our professional liability exposure in a profoundly litigious environment that obliges insurers to place so many limitations on practice?

For example, as an aside to my practice and as a means by which to augment my income, I was obliged to turn to the dark side and become a small-time real estate developer. I was amazed that the commercial loan departments of banks which routinely denied my mortgage applications would go out of their way to lend me development capital. As a consequence to these endeavors, I learned how to easily set up cogent sets of development financials as matter of routine. I could only do this for myself though. Heaven forbid I attempt to offer this line of expertise to my architectural clients, no quite beyond the limits of liability coverage.

I have given some thought to these and other questions but the answers demand far more consideration than I’ve been able to afford here. If you would indulge me, kindly ponder both what I’ve laid out and the questions I’ve raised. Once you’ve done that, kindly share your thoughts with the rest of us.

There is a measure of urgency to our predicament. Although we presently have adequate supplies of energy, rest assured that far sooner than most of us care to imagine, that will no longer be the case. If this reinvention is to succeed, it will need to occur BEFORE that platform of adequate energy disappears from under it. The three rules of this mission are Urgency, Urgency and Urgency.

Just as reminder, reinvention is what we do best in the United States and we owe it to future generations to get on with it. The world expects no less of us, so let’s get cracking!

Thank you and best regards to all!

George W. Abert, AIA, LEED® AP